The Core of Health
Personal trainers often emphasize the importance of core strength, and they are right to do so. A strong core does more than give us six-pack abs—it knits our entire body into a strong, cohesive unit.
This “core theory” is equally important for overall health. The central part of the body, the digestive system runs 20 to 30 feet from beginning to end and has countless roles in nearly every area of health. Healthy and efficient digestion is the product of a complex system that ensures proper nutrient absorption and delivery as well as toxin and waste elimination. But there’s much more to it. Digestive health directly influences immunity, hormone balance, and even mental and emotional health.
When the gastrointestinal system falls out of balance it can lead to inflammation, nutritional deficiency, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, compromised immunity, hormone imbalance, and more. These in turn can trigger a number of other serious conditions. Ultimately, if we want the body to be strong and vibrant, we need to start with the core. Or rather, once we take care of digestive health with the right diet, supplements, and healthy habits, everything else falls into place.
Immunity and more
Pathogens have only a few ways to get inside us, and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is on the front line. To keep bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxins from doing harm, the body has set up extensive immune defenses along this massive lining, which is bigger than a football field. It is believed that the GI tract houses the largest number of immune cells in the body, including specialized immune cells that help fight harmful invaders and control inflammation.
Beneficial bacteria populations (our “microbiota”) also play a large role in digestive immunity. We have co-evolved with these bacterial species to form a remarkable symbiotic relationship. In fact, we have more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells. The bacteria receive food and a suitable place to live. We get digestive support, enhanced immunity, the production of vitamins, and other benefits—many of which researchers are still discovering. In addition to improving digestion, healthy gut bacteria help protect us from many harmful microbes, forming a defensive barrier to keep pathogens at bay. They also directly support immune cell function.
Though we don’t fully understand the mechanisms, recent research shows that specific strains of probiotic flora can also support other areas of health: respiratory, cardiovascular, bone health, weight, and even healthy mood. These mechanisms are complex, and scientists are only beginning to understand the ways that probiotics communicate with and support the brain and other parts of the body.
My first recommendation for supporting probiotic colonies is to incorporate fermented, probiotic foods into a fiber-rich, plant-based diet. There are many traditional foods that provide beneficial bacteria. Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi are particularly rich in probiotics. For those who have trouble with milk, yogurt contains Lactobacillus acidophilus, a bacteria that can help the digestive tract handle dairy. Probiotic foods can also boost nutrient absorption.
We can also add nutrients called “prebiotics” to feed the bacteria. Prebiotics are special carbohydrates that support probiotic bacteria and help create a hospitable environment for them to populate. Prebiotics can be found in supplements—usually as “fructooligosaccharides,” or FOS—as well as foods like artichokes, garlic, onions, chicory root, and others.
Don’t fly blind
High quality probiotic supplements can also be beneficial, but it all comes down to getting the right kind. As often happens, when a specific supplement gains popularity, new products flood the market. Intuitively we know they are not all created equal. When reading the label for any probiotic supplement, here are a few bacteria to look for: Lactobacillus GG, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium.
There are other factors in making the right selection. Choose a supplement with a comparatively high number of bacteria in each capsule. Also, note the storage instructions—usually high quality probiotics must be refrigerated.
It’s never a bad idea to consult a physician before taking a supplement. Though probiotics are generally safe, they do have some contraindications in rare circumstances. Anyone who is severely immune-compromised may need close monitoring with the use of probiotics. The concern is that certain strains of bacteria can become overly abundant and cause problems in people with severe immune deficiency. While probiotics are almost always helpful for people who suffer from digestive disorders, this may not be true for every condition, particularly serious digestive diseases. Again, if there are concerns, consult a physician.
Adding digestive health through subtraction
While many foods are good for digestion—items rich in fiber being high on the list—there are plenty more that can have a potentially catastrophic effect.
Dairy is problematic for many as lactose can be difficult to digest, causing gas and bloating. While there are many ways to mitigate this problem, such as taking lactase enzyme supplements, some people may be best served by avoiding dairy altogether.
Gluten from wheat, barley, or rye can also be problematic. Gluten intolerance appears to be on the rise, though this may be due to increased awareness of the problems gluten can cause. In fact, many people may not know they are gluten sensitive, suffering vague inflammatory symptoms such as digestive upset, headaches, and skin problems that are difficult to pin down. The most severe is celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disorder arising from gluten allergies. Gluten issues can be difficult to diagnose, but if you feel better after eliminating it, you’re best off avoiding gluten whenever possible.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the “Western” diet is the abundance of processed foods and factory-farmed meats. Though these foods have been pronounced safe by the FDA, they are certainly not healthy and can wreak havoc on digestion over time. The countless chemicals, rancid oils, trans-fats, bacteria-laden factory meats, refined grains, and sugars in processed foods fuel inflammation and can cause a number of digestive and other health issues. Even for people with “iron guts,” I strongly recommend limiting these items. We should also consider other contributors to digestive problems: caffeine, alcohol, and prescription and OTC drugs. These can cause acid imbalances and harm good bacteria.
Mindful habits for good digestion
In addition to being mindful of what we eat, it’s equally important to look at how we eat. Time is scarce, and we often shorten meals to gain an edge. As a result, we resort to unhealthy fast food, late-night meals, and scarfing food on the run—all recipes for digestive trouble.
First, don’t eat a big meal right before bedtime. The body needs at least a couple of hours to digest properly. Take time to prepare and enjoy your meals—they will be healthier and digest better. And, in a nod to mothers everywhere, chew your food thoroughly! Chewing slowly and thoroughly helps pre-process each mouthful for better nutrient absorption and gives the digestive system time to send signals to the brain that tell us we are full and satisfied.
Also many of us are chronically dehydrated, which can contribute to digestive discomfort, constipation, and acid reflux. Drink plenty of fresh water and herbal teas.
Stress can also contribute to unhealthy digestion, as well as boosting inflammation, reducing immunity, and fueling chronic diseases. Meditation and exercise (particularly yoga, though any enjoyable activity will help) can help reduce stress and support healthy digestion.
While adjusting diet and eating habits are excellent ways to improve long-term digestive health, sometimes we need help right away. In addition to probiotics, there are a number of herbs and botanicals that can help provide fast-acting digestive comfort while supporting optimal digestive function over time.
CASSIA (CINNAMON) BARK reduces gas and supports beneficial bacteria as well as strengthening muscle tissue.
DEGLYCYRRHIZINATED LICORICE ROOT alleviates indigestion and supports a strong stomach lining.
Long a staple in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions, GINGER ROOT boosts strong digestion, relieves gas, acts as a laxative, and reduces stomach acid. Ginger can also reduce nausea.
LESSER GALANGAL ROOT serves a number of useful purposes. It can be used to treat nausea and reduce gas and is also an effective diuretic.
PEPPER FRUIT (black pepper) is good for circulation, both in the bloodstream and the digestive tract. It also contains piperine, which can help the body metabolize fat more efficiently.
POMEGRANATE SEED boosts critical gastric juices needed to strengthen digestion.
Used in Asia for thousands of years, SACRED LOTUS SEED EXTRACT can help treat a variety of gastrointestinal issues, including cramping and loose stools.
TANGERINE PEEL relieves cramping and gas and also supports strong liver function.
These ingredients can all be effective when used individually, but when taken in combination, they work together synergistically for increased benefits. In my practice, I recommend Integrative Digestive Formula. It harnesses these and other ingredients—such as proteolytic enzymes—that work to support nutrient absorption and gut immunity, relieve occasional discomfort, and promote long-term digestive health. The formula is useful on a day-to-day basis to restore gastrointestinal balance. It can also be a good friend while traveling, as exotic foods and questionable water can sometimes cause problems. In addition, I recommend it as part of a comprehensive detoxification regimen, as improved digestion helps eliminate unwanted toxins.
A gentle, whole-body approach can help improve digestion and support overall longevity in the process. Since the digestive system works hard to ensure every part of the body is getting the nutrients it needs, supporting it with healthy, holistic approaches is the least we can do to return the favor.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.